Marcelina Soriano in Paris in her sixties and in New York City in her forties.
My late mother, Marcelina Tan Soriano, was a pistol. She wasn’t a wild thing, but she had heart and she had grit. She could snake clogged pipes, wring the neck of a bound-for-supper chicken—and brag about being the only hospital worker on her shift to give a big hug to the AIDS patient in the corner room.
She cared deeply for my father, her three daughters, her home. But she also cared deeply about her job.
Though she was married to my father for decades—they died within eight weeks of each other—she never went out of her way to promote the MRS degree to me or Linda and Liz, my two sisters. She’d offer only two messages, again and again and again.
(1) Be happy. (2) Learn how to take care of yourself.
So here’s the surface stuff. She was gorgeous. Radiant. Like other Filipina women at the time, she styled her coarse blue-black hair into permanent waves. There was a beauty mark by her lower lip. And after patting her face with a thin layer of Cover Girl powder, she’d dab a bit of Muguet des Bois or Shalimar behind her ears. Then hum. Or whistle. Despite her father’s superstitious ban against whistling, she loved to do it—and she taught her daughters how to whistle too.
But there were no beauty secrets, and zero mother-daughter trips to the cosmetic counter or lessons about hose—though, gee, I could have used them. She was more likely to read the latest Perry Mason over Betty Friedan (who’s that?), but she fantasized that her daughters might consider medicine—or journalism. She took us to the library every week. She bought us typewriters.
My grandfather, Jose, could not imagine a time or world where either his wife or his daughters might work—or even want to work. Though he yanked his four daughters and two sons out of high school when the Japanese marched into Manila in 1942, he kept the family together and an eye on a postwar real estate business that would provide the safety net he needed for his sons and daughters. My mother was terrified of him: he was shrewd in business and controlling as a parent.
So he was stunned when my mother, who had been in the care of specialists in New York City after a (probably fortunate) medical misdiagnosis, announced that she was marrying a waiter, and planned to move into his tenement apartment in Manhattan. Jose disowned her.
For five years (during which my parents had their first two children) they managed to survive—until the icebox went kaput.
Marcy was sure that my dad had the savings to replace it. Surprise! There was nothing.
So—though it made her feel scared and weird and disconnected—she cleaned houses. Then, through a friend who was an RN, she heard a rumor about openings for nursing assistants.
She showed up to apply—and was told she was mistaken; there were no openings.
“But I’ve already bought the uniform and shoes,” she replied. They were in a bag; she’d brought them with her.
I have no idea what the hiring manager at Manhasset Medical Center thought. (Who was this crazy woman?) But Mom was hired provisionally—and stayed for 35 years.
This ended up being her life’s work. She loved sharing a lot of icky medical details at the dinner table every night, and as her squeamish daughter, I often went Eww. But I realized that even if she won the lottery, she’d never give this up: it wasn’t just for a paycheck. She loved the people contact, the sense of purpose—that even emptying bedpans and changing sheets mattered.
Her drive and competence were noticed. Nurses would grab her by the sleeve and say, “So ever consider nursing school?”
She and I never got into it.
Mom, didn’t you think you could make it?
Or maybe she’s saying to me now, “Susan, I really liked what I did. I really liked where I was. I was happy. It’s all I needed. Isn’t that enough?”